文章 Articles

Hydropower on the Nu: one river, many perspectives

A cascade of proposed hydroelectric projects on one of Asia’s longest undammed rivers has caused great controversy in southwest China. Kristen McDonald reports from the Upper Nu River.
Article image

There are no towns in the valley carved by the Upper Nu River in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). The roads and bridges are poor, and there are only a scattering of monasteries. It is almost possible to imagine that the modernisation sweeping across China has hit a wall. 

Last September, a group of international boaters – 13 Americans, two Chinese and one German – gathered to attempt a first descent on the river’s remote upper reaches. Before arriving in Lhasa, all we knew about the 230-kilometre section of river we would float by raft and kayak we had learned from Google Earth: nine rapids of indiscernible size; one black, shadowy canyon; and hundreds of miles of road-less countryside.

Far downstream from this unknown canyon is a proposed cascade of 13 hydropower dams: one of China’s greatest environmental controversies this decade. The dams would turn one of the country’s last free-flowing river sections into a series of reservoirs, and would drown what has been called “China’s Grand Canyon.” Since the dam proposal emerged, stories of the canyon’s great biological and cultural diversity have lured journalists and river experts from around the globe. The international attention succeeded in temporarily halting construction, but as the media glare fades and conservation groups begin to lose hope, the fate of one of China’s last free-flowing rivers is far from sealed.

One river, different perspectives

Aside from the farmers who live along the Nu River, those most knowledgeable of its river valleys are likely the engineers who come to live for months at a time building bridges, roads and dams. They believe they are doing a great thing for China.

On the plane ride to Lhasa, I met a government engineer from Zhejiang province who oversees a hydropower project on the “Black River,” a tributary to the Nu River that we would pass by in a few days time. The Zhejiang provincial government invests in dams with the help from China’s Great Western Development Campaign, launched by the central government in 2001 to boost economic growth in China’s lagging western provinces. With over 22,000 large dams, China is home to about half of the world’s total.

“Is it true that in China, the real rulers are the engineers?” I asked the official.

He smiled and gave a quick nod. Later he told me that now, because of the controversy over the downstream dams, there probably will not be any additional projects on the main stem of the Nu River in the TAR.

While researching my doctoral dissertation I learned that local people in the area of the proposed 13 dams on the Nu River also believe the dams may be good for China. They feel little attachment to the fate of the Nu. Rather, their lives revolve around the tributary streams, where they draw water for irrigation, drinking, cooking and bathing. To them, the main river is almost a non-entity.

Upstream in eastern Tibetan regions, people’s lives are similarly arranged around the tributaries. But Tibetan Buddhists see the river itself quite differently than their downstream neighbors in Yunnan. To them, the Nu River carries spiritual importance. It is seen as a conduit towards central Tibet and Lhasa, the heart of Tibetan Buddhism.

It is in these areas that river burial is widely practiced. In this ancient ritual, the remains of the deceased are cut into pieces, bound together with ropes, laden with stones, and thrown into the deepest part of the river. Rivers are thought to provide a portal to the underworld, and at times, spirits on great golden yaks are said to appear in certain eddies.

As we steered our colorful rafts past villages that still hold such beliefs, we sometimes wondered if we are being mistaken for deities.

A fledgling rafting industry

China’s handful of serious rafters have been courageous in their willingness to pursue an unpopular sport, but their limited number has meant they have little ability to shape the future of China’s rivers. Very few rivers, with the exception of the Chishui in Sichuan and a handful of sections of the Yangtze have been protected for their ecological or scenic values. China’s seasoned dam industry will likely continue to build large dams on places like the Nu River, the Yangtze River, and many rivers in Tibet that have spectacular scenery and whitewater. But so far, China lacks a constituency for free-flowing rivers.

Little by little, that may be changing. Last year, the first company in China licensed to conduct multi-day river trips was founded by American kayaker Travis Winn and Chinese businessman Na Ming Hui. The two decided to call the company “Last Descents,” a name that reflects their fear that China’s remaining raft-able rivers are soon to disappear.

“In China,” Na Ming Hui told me, as we floated through a calm section of the Nu River canyon, “people want to boat, but they don’t know how to get started. More and more people have money and want to do go have adventures, but rafting has not quite caught on.”

Na Ming Hui got involved in boating through the rock climbing community in Kunming, where he also runs a shop that imports and sells western food. He thought it would be fun to turn his hobby of rafting into a business, and more importantly, to push for a system of regulations that would alleviate the headache caused by the lack of a permitting process.

The US has hundreds of rafting outfitters. But besides Last Descents, there are just a few rafting companies in China who mostly run day trips. The best, most scenic stretches of whitewater in China, found further west in Sichuan, Yunnan, and the Tibetan plateau, require skills and equipment that only a couple of foreign companies can offer. So far, these trips have attracted foreign boaters but few Chinese.

Winn and Hui hope to change that, but they are aware that growing a river conservation movement through rafting will take time that rivers in China don’t have. Dams on the upper Yangtze, for example, will cover up the river’s “Great Bend” section, one of the best sections of whitewater in China. Last Descents will run what could be the last trip down this scenic canyon in April of this year, bringing Chinese media and scientists to document the river before it disappears.

Worth more than hydropower?

Worshipping nature is not new to Chinese culture. Daoism advances respect for nature through a philosophy centered on man’s submission to “heaven” (tian in Chinese, which means not just heaven but the entire cosmos, including Earth). But both Confucian and Marxist views of nature – as a force to be controlled, either in the service of order or in the service of production – have overshadowed Daoism in modern Chinese society.

This is one reason that those who would like to see the Nu River protected from development face such an uphill battle. Another is the country’s overarching dogma of economic growth, which leaves little room to consider why the Nu River might be valued for something other than hydropower.

In a newspaper article about our trip, one of our US team members said, “If I could have one thing happen from this trip it would be that the Salween [Nu] River, especially the area we did, would get the national recognition and protection that the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon gets.”

The Nu River is home to some of China’s most isolated and thriving ethnic minority cultures, rich biodiversity, and pristine and scenic wilderness. Its isolation and ruggedness have fostered communities that have unique perspectives on the meaning and importance of the river. There are few places left in the world where humans live in river canyons such as these, and as we learned floating from Sadeng to Lorong on the upper Nu River, there are few places left in China that have the capacity to so deeply awe wilderness worshippers such as ourselves.

Perhaps some believe the movement to protect China’s “last free-flowing river” has gone as far as it can, sensing that the dams are inevitable. Others are perhaps afraid we don’t know enough about the Nu River to deem it worthy of protecting. It seems to me that given the indications of central government sympathy, now is precisely the time when protecting the Nu River as a piece of China’s outstanding river heritage has become a real possibility.

What do you think? Do some of China’s rivers like the Nu River deserve protection from development? Who should decide?

Kristen McDonald, PhD, is a recent graduate of the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the US Director of the China Rivers Project: https://www.chinariversproject.org.

For photos and more stories from the first descent of the Nu (Salween) between Sadeng and Lhorong, see https://salweenfirstdescent.com.

Now more than ever…

chinadialogue is at the heart of the battle for truth on climate change and its challenges at this critical time.

Our readers are valued by us and now, for the first time, we are asking for your support to help maintain the rigorous, honest reporting and analysis on climate change that you value in a 'post-truth' era.

Support chinadialogue

发表评论 Post a comment

评论通过管理员审核后翻译成中文或英文。 最大字符 1200。

Comments are translated into either Chinese or English after being moderated. Maximum characters 1200.

评论 comments

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


关注水坝建设的争议一直存在着 但是主流媒体上关于此类事情的报道 一直很少


The dam construcion issues has been argued for years, but major medias seldom pay attention to that issues.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


保护环境和发展经济本来就是两难 中国只应该承担能力范围之内的义务

Environment and development

Environment protection vs development is a issue never easy to cope with, however,China only need to undertake the obligations which should be undertaken.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



In my opinion

I think the Chinese government must have considered the advantages and disadvantages that the dam projects may come into being. And their action must be reasonable. I stand with them.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Environmental protection isn't only the international responsibility of nation states, especially in terms of waterway protection. If we insist on saying it is a responsibility, then surely it is more of a responsibility for the citizens (that is to say - us).

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


Andrew Mertha的新著(康奈尔大学出版社,2008年三月)在资源管理(特别是水资源)上提供了几个新颖而有趣的观点,详尽地描述了参与大坝建设的各种各样的和常常相互冲突的层层政府机构。




Local policies versus grand schemes

Andrew Mertha's new book "China's Water Warriors - Citizen Action and Policy Change" (Cornell University Press, March 2008) provides new and interesting perspectives on resource management (specifically: water), mapping in great detail the various and oftentimes conflicting layers of government agencies involved in dam construction. From the press release: "[Mertha] argues that as China has become increasingly market driven, decentralized, and politically heterogeneous, the control and management of water has transformed from an unquestioned economic imperative to a lightning rod of bureaucratic infighting, societal opposition, and open protest. Although bargaining has always been present in Chinese politics, more recently the media, nongovernmental organizations, and other activists--actors hitherto denied a seat at the table--have emerged as serious players in the policy-making process."
I have read through the book briefly and had a chat with Andrew a week ago where he stated clearly that the decision making process in respect to damming China's rivers has become much more complex, and much less top-down; in fact it is very often local cadres who are interested in using dam construction as a way to manage water, and not Beijing. But no matter what level of authority, under these (new) circumstances the "pluralization of the Chinese policy process" places a higher degree of responsibility on more shoulders.

One chapter in Mertha's book, btw, deals with the Nu River hydropower plans.

Thomas H. Hahn/Cornell

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



the awareness of environment protection

In China, few people care about environment protection and those who claim to be protectors seldom act upon the words. It is very regretful.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





hydro-meteorological information Nu / Salween River

Dear Everyone,
The Nu / Salween River basin is very remote and spectacular place on earth as to hydro-meteorology, ecology and culture. It was topic of my MSc thesis in 2005. If you are interested, visit the corresponding website on http://www.salween.unibe.ch Regards, Chris

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


很高兴看到大家对我文章的评论。我同意Thomas H. Kahn(和Andy Andy Mertha)的观点,就是中国水电项目的管理由上而下的决策过程比10年前要少。但政府官员在怒江州希望建设水坝主要是因为他们的政府收入将增加27倍,而不是因为他们是高瞻远瞩的水资源管理者。
虽然一些环保组织,新闻工作者和学者一直对这项计划持反对意见,但我并不同意把怒江的情况刻画成"草根的胜利".因为在怒江流域公开反对水坝建设将会面临处罚,而且他们中很多人也并不想反对。这跟虎跳峡的情况是很不一样的。我的博士论文"中国筑坝的大峡谷:怒江流域非民主化中的多元化"在这点上有更多的讨论。在这里与每个人的对话与交流都是很开心的。谢谢! -Kristen

Re: local policies versus grand schemes

It is great to see everyone's comments on my article. I agree with Thomas H. Kahn (and Andy Mertha) that hydropower politics in China are much less top down than 10 years ago. But leaders in the Nu Prefecture want the dams mostly because they will see a 27 fold increase in government revenue if they are built, not because they are visionary water managers. And though there has been opposition to this project among concerned environmental organizations, journalists, and academics, I disagree with characterizations of the Nu River situation as a "grassroots victory." No one in the Nu River valley can openly argue against the dams without facing punishment, nor would many of them want to. It is very different than the Tiger Leaping Gorge case. My dissertation "Damming China's Grand Canyon: Pluralization without Democratization in the Nu River Valley" goes more into this. Again, wonderful to dialogue with everyone. Thanks! - Kristen

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



the ultimate intention of the government

So the fundamental problem is not about environmental awareness, willingness, technological capacity or whatever, but it is down to this question: whether those in power intend to make the country prosper and thrive, or they're simply interested in their personal gain. I suspect they haven't figured it out yet.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


中国自上而下的行政指令正在减少,这很令人振奋.然而,绝大部分中国人和他们的政府一样,更关注经济的繁荣而不是环境保护.决定开发水电的根本因素是当下或者近期能否带来最大的经济效益.我希望中国能够更多的考虑到环境问题.许多中国人会从发展水电受益.由于发展水电,许多贫瘠地区的居民可以维持生计,但有官员考虑过无节制发展的后果吗?在不久的将来,中国神圣的天然江河系统将会消失,永久的消失.这些江河有很高的保护价值,但只有在中国的经济发展放缓或平稳之后才会被认识到. -Chad

Protect the River

Its great that China is becoming less top-down; however, the majority of Chinese people, along with the government, care much more for economic prosperity than the environment. Whatever brings the most money now or in the near future will be the ultimate decision for hydropower. I would like it if China would think more about the environment. Developments in hydropower is great for many people in China. Many of the arid regions can sustain life only because of hydropower, but have any China officials thought about the effects of unchecked development. Soon all of China's sacred and natural river systems will be gone; forever. These rivers have a high value that wont be appreciated until China's steady economic growth slows or flat-lines.

- Chad